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Hostels get an upgrade

September 28, 2008|Rachel Rees | Special to The Times

Ah, Prague, where the living is cheap and the beer is even cheaper.

But the rest of Europe? Not so much.

During my six months in the capital of the Czech Republic, I learned to begin my wanderings away from my home base by finding a hostel, a budget traveler's best friend.

Some hostels, which provide a clean bed and necessary overnight facilities at low prices, are dorm-style, although some offer private accommodations. Most are centrally located, and staffers are often just as helpful as a concierge.

I easily booked the hostels online. Cheap was the only unifying factor.

For instance, a dorm-style room at Wombat's City Hostel in Munich, Germany, in February cost $12 a night. A double at A'Scalinatella hostel in Atrani, a five-minute walk from Italy's Amalfi coast, cost $36 per person a night in May.

Fast-forward several months to Los Angeles -- the city of Hollywood glam and $8 beers. Where are those cheap hostels?

They're around and just as inexpensive and as good as many of Europe's offerings.

"I think a lot of Americans don't realize that hostels are an option for them," said Maria Argyropoulos, vice president of operations for USA Hostels Inc., a hostel chain with locations in Hollywood, San Diego, San Francisco and Las Vegas.

More than half the visitors at the company's Hollywood location are from the Continent, and about a fifth are from Britain. Aussies ranked third at 12% and Americans came in fourth at 6%.

And if you think of hostels as bunk beds, scratchy sheets and Spartan quarters, think again.

"What has changed are the amenities," Argyropoulos said.

"We recently upgraded everything -- installing cable, flat-screen TVs, air conditioning, new beds and upgrading linen."

The downside to the upgrades is higher rates.

Throughout the western USA Hostel chain, dorm-style rooms now start at $33 per bed (with taxes), up $6 from a year ago.

Yet even at upscale locations, such as Maui and Martha's Vineyard, Mass., prices still shame their hotel competition.

For instance, at Maui's Banana Bungalow, in the town of Wailuku, just a couple of miles from the Kahului airport, rates start at $25 a person per night and include free island tours. And Hostelling International-Martha's Vineyard in Edgartown, open since 1955, offers beds starting at $32 a night through Oct. 11. (It closes for winter and will reopen in mid-May.)

Put these numbers up against the national average hotel room rate for the first seven months of the year: $107.45, up from $103.64 in 2007.

You don't have to be a college kid to go the hostel route, either. Although Web Reservations International (which includes Hostels.com and Hostelworld.com) targets the youth market, about 20% of its international bookings are for thirtysomethings, and 7% are in the over-40 market.

The hostel scene has even expanded to accommodate families. Look for the private room option when booking, which offers accommodations for groups of two to four guests (but more sleepers usually can be accommodated upon request).

In fact, the toughest part of the hostel experience may be finding them. Among the resources:

Hostelworld.com is a multilingual, multinational website that allows users to book hostel stays in more than 168 countries, according to its website. Of all hostel websites, I found Hostelworld to be the most comprehensive and user-friendly.

Hostelling International is another popular booking option. This nonprofit brands hostels with the HI-prefix to denote member hostels, which are recognized for their cleanliness, friendliness and affordability. Though each is independently operated, prices average $20 to $30 a night, depending on season and city size.

Hostelusa.com is another popular booking site, though its listings are exclusively limited to hostels in U.S. locations and cater to foreign travel.

Argyropoulos suggests giving hostels a chance. "You may find it to be a really pleasant experience," she said.

She paused. "In the end," she added, "you're only going to sleep there."

For cheap, I may add.

--

travel@latimes.com

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